Children in custody at much higher risk of sexual abuse than previously thought

The number of children at risk of sexual abuse in young offender centres and other custodial institutions is much higher than previously thought, a report has found.

There were 1,070 reported incidents between 2009 and 2017, an investigation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) said, despite a drop in the number of children detained in that period.

Inquiry chairwoman Professor Alexis Jay (pictured) said she was “deeply disturbed” by the continuing problem, adding that it is clear vulnerable children remain at risk.

The report, which looked at young offender institutions (YOIs), secure training centres (STCs) and secure children’s homes (SCHs) across England and Wales, said “the number of reported incidents of sexual abuse is much higher than was previously understood”.

There are around 900 children in such institutions, generally from unhappy and disrupted backgrounds, with some having become involved in regular offending, the report said.

The inquiry team acknowledged there are difficulties involved in managing vulnerable children who often have challenging behaviour including violence towards staff and their peers, but added: “Nevertheless, we concluded that children in YOIs and STCs are not safe from harm, either physical or sexual.”

It added: “The culture of these institutions, particularly their closed nature and focus on containment and control, has not provided an environment that protects children from either physical or sexual abuse.”

Among the report’s recommendations are calls for a full review by the Department for Education and the Youth Custody Service into whether putting children for justice and welfare reasons together in secure children’s homes actually increases the risk of child sex abuse.

It also calls on the Ministry of Justice to stop allowing the use of pain compliance techniques including bending a child’s thumbs and wrists, saying this technique itself should be seen as a form of child abuse.

The inquiry, which heard two weeks of evidence in July last year, discovered recent examples of abuse including an allegation that a female member of staff had abused children at Medway secure training centre in Kent in 2015.

A year earlier, at Rainsbrook secure training centre in Warwickshire, members of staff allegedly allowed two young people to go into a bedroom together, knowing that one of the young people was going abuse the other.

As well as looking at incidents in the past decade, the inquiry heard from adults who told of their experiences of abuse in custodial institutions as children.

One man said he had been sexually assaulted by two members of staff at the same time when he was aged 11, and another witness who had attended Stanhope Castle Approved School in County Durham gave details of 35 examples of times when he was raped and sexually assaulted by four members of staff and a former pupil.

Prof Jay said: “The harrowing accounts of non-recent child sexual abuse within custodial institutions were some of the worst cases this Inquiry has heard.

“But I am also deeply disturbed by the continuing problem of child sexual abuse in these institutions over the last decade. It is clear these children, who are some of the most vulnerable in society, are still at risk of sexual abuse.

“I hope our report and recommendations can help protect them better in future.”

The report said custodial institutions have been “poorly resourced” for the period it investigated, with an “unacceptable” level of staff turnover amid low morale and inadequate training.

Imran Hussain, Labour’s shadow justice minister, said: “This is an extremely damning and disturbing report which shines a spotlight on manifest failings in youth justice.

“The state has a special responsibility for the welfare and safety of the children detained in its custody and it is failing to meet those responsibilities.

“The report is clear that management instability along with staffing and budget cuts have played a role in these failings.

“We need urgent answers from the government on how it will address those issues and urgent action to set out how it will implement the recommendations of the report needed to keep children safe.”

The probe into custodial institutions is one of 13 strands of public life being investigated for child protection failings by the IICSA.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved.